Returning home after three tours of duty in Afghanistan, Derek Blumke was eager to return to college. But the Air Force veteran felt unwelcome at the University of Michigan as he tried alone to manage the transition from warrior to student.
During one of his initial calls to the school, school employees told him they couldn't answer his questions because he wasn't yet a student. Later, he found himself wandering around the Ann Arbor campus, trying to figure out how to use his military benefits to pay tuition and feeling like no one would help.
"I was frustrated and angry and disappointed," said Blumke, 26, a former gunship maintenance supervisor who's now a senior studying political science and psychology at Michigan. "That frustration and anger turned into motivation. You don't want me here? OK, fine. I WILL come here."
As veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq return to campus, many are finding that colleges and universities are only beginning to figure out how to help them transition back to civilian, social and academic life.
Many need help with paperwork. Others seek emotional and psychological support. And some struggle to fit in with classmates who are often much younger.
"Obviously, nobody goes to combat and comes back the same person," said Bob Wallace, director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a Marine veteran of Vietnam.
With more people returning from conflict than at any time since the Vietnam War — along with a new, more generous GI bill — the number of college-bound vets is expected to swell.
Universities are trying
About 250,000 veterans are attending colleges and universities on the GI Bill, according to the Veterans Administration. There are no firm statistics on the number attending without the GI bill.
At Michigan, Blumke — now president of a national group, the Student Veterans of America — said the university recently appointed a single point person to answer questions. He recommends that other schools set up veterans councils — groups of student vets who can help identify problems.
Many veterans have banded together to help each other navigate their schools.
Megan Upperman dropped most of her classes during one of her first semesters at Southern Illinois University after finding it difficult to transition back to civilian life.
Upperman, who served in Iraq in 2004 in Army National Guard supply convoys, said she was uncharacteristically edgy for six or eight months after her return. She was in what she called a state of "hyper overdrive."
"At the drop of a dime, I'd just get upset over something that was ridiculous," said Upperman, 23, a senior earning a bachelor's degree in kinesiology.
At the urging of a boyfriend, she enrolled in counseling through the Veterans Affairs Department.
She also helped start an on-campus veterans group, Cougar Vets, to help other veterans find answers to questions like how to use military benefits like the GI Bill.
Enter the Black Knights
At Eastern Illinois University, Army veteran Eric Hiltner and other veterans resurrected a defunct informal fraternity for Army vets called the Black Knights.
Hiltner, a 24-year-old journalism student who served in Iraq, found it more comfortable to socialize with other veterans than many of the other students on campus.
"They're sitting there (saying), "I haven't seen my dog in two weeks,'" Hiltner said with a weary laugh. "I'm going, 'I've gone two and a half years without seeing my family.'"
Andy King, the director of counseling services at the Edwardsville campus of Southern Illinois, said such groups are a good way for veterans to help themselves.
Not all want to be part of a vets group, King says, but many take comfort in knowing their experience isn't unique.
"It should provide some normalization and validation for what it's like to be sometimes a 23-year-old college freshman who's seen some pretty horrible stuff, but yet you're sitting in a freshman English course with a bunch of 18-year-olds who haven't seen anything," King said.
'Bend over backwards'
At Michigan, Blumke says he's begun working with the university's Depression Center on outreach programs for vets on and off campuses.
Dr. John Greden, director of the center, said he hopes to set up pilot sites at other campuses to test ideas ranging from mobile counseling units to training veteran peer counselors.
The ideas work best when campuses make them their own, he said — something vets like Blumke are prodding schools to do.
"I think as a society we've got to really bend over backwards to make their local community responsible for helping," Greden said.